Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Trending Up: Carey Price

Down Goes Brown has a great post on why hockey predictions are almost always wrong. I generally try to avoid making predictions for similar reasons, especially at the team level where there are just too many variables and too much randomness to worry about. The chances get a little better when we start looking at individual players, although even then the percentages over a single season have a lot of impact on those results (hands up, everyone who thinks Loui Eriksson is going to score 36 goals on 178 shots again). However, I am going to throw caution to the wind anyway and make one prediction for this upcoming season, because I think that it has a very high likelihood of being correct. That prediction is that Carey Price will have a bounceback year in 2009-10.

In case anyone has forgotten over the long offseason, Carey Price burst onto the scene in 2007-08, putting up a 2.56/.920 line for the Conference champion Montreal Canadiens and performing admirably for the first round of the playoffs against Boston before hitting a hiccup or two against the Flyers. Price's numbers then took a significant step backward last year, dropping to 2.83/.905. Price then went 4.11/.878 in the playoffs as the injury-riddled Canadiens were completely outclassed by the top-seeded Bruins.

Based on that two season sample, the trend doesn't look particularly good for Carey Price. Some put a lot of weight on his playoff sample especially, and as a result are skeptical of Price's ability to become a top goalie in the NHL. I think that opinion is likely misguided. There are a number of indicators that I like to look when trying to estimate future performance, and they seem to be positive across the board for the Habs' young netminder.

The biggest factor is Price's age. He just turned 22 on August 16. When we look at guys like Price and Steve Mason, we can sometimes forget that few goalies play well at the NHL level in their early 20s. I looked at how all the goalies in the league in the post-lockout period did at different ages (excluding Price himself):

age 21: .896
age 22: .899
age 23: .907

Most goalies aren't in the NHL at age 21 or 22, and the ones that are there don't usually put up good numbers until they are 23 or 24. Even with his struggles in 2008-09, Price is well ahead of the development curve. It is probably reasonable to expect him to be improving for the next couple of seasons, just as we have seen Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward take steps forward in recent years. This isn't guaranteed, of course, since not every 21 year old goalie improved in his age 22 year old season (the most spectacular example being Jim Carey). It is, however, the most likely scenario.

If we look at Price's situational results from 2008-09, we see that he was actually above average at even strength (.920). What hurt him the most was an .843 save percentage on the penalty kill. Penalty kill results tend to be more random, since the sample sizes are smaller. There is little reason to expect a very good or a very bad PK number to carry forward to the next season, unless the goalie is especially strong or weak (or if we have reason to believe that the team's PK unit is an outlier). In 2007-08 Price had an .885 PK save percentage, which suggests there is little reason to think that he isn't able to perform at 4 on 5. He is very likely to improve on that .843 this season, which will boost his overall numbers.

Price's even strength performance so far in his career has been quite strong. Over the last two years his EV SV% ranks 9th in the league among goalies with at least 80 starts. The only goalies in front of him are pretty much the cream of the crop at the NHL level: Thomas, Luongo, Vokoun, Brodeur, Fleury, Giguere, Bryzgalov, Backstrom.

It is difficult to predict how well the team in front of him will play, given Montreal's offseason overhaul. Montreal did hire a new coach, Jacques Martin, who is known for his focus on systems and defence. The team also improved its blueline depth and should be stronger at even strength. Whether the Habs are a better team next year I'm not sure, but I think there is a good chance that they will be better defensively, which would make Price's job easier.

Finally, streaks can have a big impact on the success or failure of an individual season. One terrific or one awful month can put a goalie either in the running or out of contention for the Vezina. Extreme results like that are less likely to occur the next season. For Carey Price this is a good thing, since his season wasn't really all that bad outside of two months. He had a strong start, was awful in January and February, and then recovered towards the end of the year.

Here is the breakdown of Price's career so far, splitting out January and February of 2009:

Jan and Feb '09: 2-8-1, 3.82, .866
Rest of career: 45-20-12, 2.54, .918

Price was coming back from an injury, which was probably mostly responsible for his sudden regression. Jaroslav Halak also had a pretty forgettable January (3.53, .888), which suggests that there were more things going wrong in Montreal at that time than just the goaltending. It seems unlikely that those factors will converge in the same way in 2009-10. I think the "rest of career" line is a lot closer to Price's true ability than that two-month sample returning from injury on a slumping team, and therefore it is more likely to predict what Price does in the future. Other than his nightmarish February, Price has been at .909 or better in every month of his career in which he has played 300 or more minutes.

One thing I find particularly interesting is that Price's 2009 struggles led to widespread criticism that he was not mentally tough enough to handle the pressure in Montreal. This despite most scouts agreeing that Price's unflappability and mental strength were among his best attributes as a prospect. It is possible that some of Price's playoff performances were adversely affected by the pressure, but it seems unlikely that his biggest strength would suddenly become his biggest weakness almost overnight.

In my opinion much of what is said about a goalie's mental abilities is merely an attempt to rationalize randomness. That is not to say that there aren't any goalies who are mentally tough or mentally weak, just that a few bad months or a playoff series here or there are not nearly enough evidence to make that claim. Especially when the goalie in question is playing in Montreal, where the "he can't handle the pressure" narrative is the journalist's go-to rationalization for poor performance. Over the last 10 years, Montreal ranks 4th in the league in total save percentage, which doesn't really suggest that its goaltenders have been stumbling under the intense pressure. That's still apparently not enough to dissuade journalists from writing sparkling copy about Montreal's goalie being the "The Loneliest Man in Sports".

The signs seem to point to good things for Carey Price in 2009-10. Nothing is certain, of course, since goalie performance is variable and most young goalies don't develop in a straight line, but I think it's a pretty good bet. I doubt Price's winning percentage will be quite as high as it was in 2007-08, unless I'm misjudging Gainey's moves, but his other numbers could easily return to a similar range (~.915) this coming season.

16 comments:

Ryan said...

Just a note on your point about the PK shots. You say that short-handed results are more random because of the smaller sample size, which is certainly true, but that alone isn't a good reason to ignore them. That's like ignoring second period shots, if you found that Price was unusually bad on those.

I do agree that PK results are less useful for predictions, but for a different reason: a goalie has less control over them. (Or in other words, shot quality/team effects matter more.)

(Also interesting is that since PK shots have a higher chance to go in than ES shots, even if the sample sizes were the same, you'd have a larger variance on the PK shots.)

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I'm not ignoring PK performance, I'm just stating that it is unlikely Price will post another extremely poor number this season. I think both of those things are true, that PK shots are more variable because of small sample sizes and that they are more subjective to team effects. If we had some better evidence to be able to predict Montreal's penalty kill performance this year then we could use that to inform our prediction, but given their roster turnover and the coaching staff changes I'm not sure whether we can even speculate on that.

It is possible that Price is a bad PK goalie or that Montreal has a weak PK unit. If both of those are true he might be around .843 again this year. We just don't have enough information to really tell on either count. What we do know is that Price is a good goalie at EV, we know that his 2007-08 PK results were good, and we know that goalie PK numbers fluctuate from year-to-year. I think from that it is more reasonable to forecast something around league average or better, and that would represent a significant improvement for Price in 2009-10.

I'm not sure what your point is about second period shots. If I found out that Price was great on second period shots in 2007-08 but was weak in 2008-09, I'd probably make the same conclusion: Expect him to regress towards the mean in 2009-10. If both data points were on the same extreme then we might have some evidence of something, but this early in Price's career I don't think there's much reason to think it's anything other than randomness.

eyebleaf said...

Here's hoping Price suffers an EPIC FAIL in 09/10

Anonymous said...

I think Carey Price totally blew it in the '08 playoffs against Philly (I don't hold this year's playoffs against him nearly as much), but he was super-young at the time. The guy deserves a break, and I think he's a lot more talented than Steve Mason (who I doubt will repeat his okay-at-best '08-09 season this year).

JLikens said...

To the best of my knowledge, it's never been demonstrated that team effects are more important with respect to PK SV% relative to EV SV%.

For example, there's no correlation between the seasonal PK SV% of the starting goalie and his backup.

However, in terms of EV SV%, in which team effects are known to be minimal, there is a small yet positive correlation among the same variables.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

JLikens: Wouldn't some of that seasonal correlation result have to do with the sample sizes? A typical backup goalie might face something like 50-75 PK shots in a season, so there would be a lot of statistical noise when we compare those numbers to the starter's, wouldn't there?

But you're right, I don't think it has been shown that there are stronger shot quality effects on the PK than at EV.

JLikens said...

You're definitely right about the sample size issue.

What I forgot to mention is that I used a weighted correlation, rather than a raw correlation, in my analysis (for both EVSV and PKSV).

The weight I assigned to each data pairing was the number of shots faced by the backup goaltender.

Bruce said...

I think Carey Price totally blew it in the '08 playoffs against Philly

Now here's an anonymous comment I can agree with. Price came apart against the Flyers, it was far more than "a hiccup or two", he had a brutal series. Then in '09 he came apart against the Bruins.

At this point I have serious questions about this guy's mental makeup. What some trumpet as "unflappability" looked like lack of compete to me on more than one occasion. I suppose body language is in the eye of the beholder.

I still think Bob Gainey did the kid no favours at the '08 trade deadline when he dumped Huet for a pick and thrust Price into the #1 role with a favoured team in his rookie season. Gainey might have had dreams of Dryden or Roy, but trading a solid goalie and security blanket for a draft pick when preparing for a playoff run was just bloody stupid. When things turned sour against Philly there was nowhere to turn.

I wish the kid well, but he will be under the microscope just as much as ever in '09-10 and will need to respond to adversity better than he has shown in his pro career to date.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

The weight I assigned to each data pairing was the number of shots faced by the backup goaltender.

OK, makes sense. I played with my special teams data a bit and I think I agree that there doesn't seem to be any more of a shot quality effect on the PK than at EV. No doubt you've demonstrated that in a much more convincing statistical way than anything I've come up, but I'll probably throw a quick post up shortly with the numbers I ran anyway.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I suppose body language is in the eye of the beholder.

I agree with this, because I'm not sure I fully agree with your other sentiments. Price's style is efficient and relaxed, dropping into a butterfly on everything and relying a lot on butterfly slides. Even when he's stopping everything it looks like he's not really trying. I agree that many probably misconstrue that as being unflappable, but it might just be the opposite mistake to call it a lack of compete level when the pucks aren't hitting him.

I do wonder if goalies like Price would be better off if they deviated from their style more often and relied a bit more on impromptu athleticism, but I think that's more of a technical issue than an effort issue.

I agree that Price needs to play better the next time around in the playoffs. A year or two more of the same thing and there's a legitimate case there for him not being able to handle the pressure. But I don't think we can make that case yet, especially because I don't put much stock in 2009 because the team was just in complete shambles. Even if Price does have performance issues he's still only 22 and has some time ahead of him to learn to work through them. I guess we'll just see how it goes over the next few seasons.

JLikens said...

"OK, makes sense. I played with my special teams data a bit and I think I agree that there doesn't seem to be any more of a shot quality effect on the PK than at EV. No doubt you've demonstrated that in a much more convincing statistical way than anything I've come up, but I'll probably throw a quick post up shortly with the numbers I ran anyway."

Yeah, I was actually planning on throwing a post up myself but haven't got around to it due to time constraints.

In any event, I'd be interested to see your analysis.

While were on the subject, I actually recall Vic mentioning some time ago that there were team effects with respect to the PKSV% of individual goalies (he can correct me if I'm misremembering here).

He's obviously looked into these questions in considerable detail so perhaps there's something that I'm overlooking.

Bruce said...

I agree with this, because I'm not sure I fully agree with your other sentiments.

Oh come now, CG, I thought you and I agreed on everything, just like we always do.

Price's style is efficient and relaxed, dropping into a butterfly on everything and relying a lot on butterfly slides. Even when he's stopping everything it looks like he's not really trying.

Absolutely agreed. He's unusual in this respect for a goalie but there are more than a handful of "out players" who are the same way. e.g. Even when he's scoring Dustin Penner looks like he's barely breaking a sweat. For those guys who make it appear too easy, it's both a blessing and a curse. (With most of the curses coming from the stands and in the local media)

I agree that many probably misconstrue that as being unflappable, but it might just be the opposite mistake to call it a lack of compete level when the pucks aren't hitting him.

Yes of course, we agree on that too. I was careful to say "looked like a lack of compete on more than one occasion". I was trying to make the distinction that this problem has been episodic rather than defining the young man's character, but after three bad patches in 12 calendar months he's wobbling on the brink in my view. Would it work better for you if I said, "There were two or three games I saw where it seemed he had quit"?

In my advancing years I'm neither Habs fan nor hater anymore, but I continue to follow hockey's greatest franchise with no little interest. I'm especially interested in the young goaltender who in at least one possible future is currently being groomed to be Canada's #1 by as soon as 2014. As such, his early tendency to fold under playoff pressure is of no small concern.

Besides two pretty dreadful series in a row, he also had that prolonged slump in mid-season. I saw a couple of those games and it wasn't just a matter of Price sucking (which he did, on those nights) as his head not being in the right place. He looked confused to the point of being scared.

I agree that Price needs to play better the next time around in the playoffs.

See what I mean, even when you thought you were disagreeing with me you couldn't help yourself and wound up agreeing with my conclusions. :)

Now tell me if you agree with this: At this point Jaro Halak is closer to being the #1 goalie in Montreal than he was last camp.

Anonymous said...

Price is just another one of those "drop to your knees, close your eyes, and pray the puck hits you" type goalies thats stats a very largely influenced by the team around him. its easy hav ing the season he did in 07-08 on a first place team. not much of a coincidence that when hes on a borderline playoff team he gets exposed.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Now tell me if you agree with this: At this point Jaro Halak is closer to being the #1 goalie in Montreal than he was last camp.

Sure. That's true not just because of the way Price's season went last year, but also because Halak more than doubled his career GP in the NHL last season and showed that he is also a promising young goalie. One of the biggest risks to Price not rebounding this year is if Halak gets off to a hot start and takes a lot of starts away, if not even the entire starting job, depending on how Price plays.

However, Jacques Martin has apparently said Price is his starter, and as a new coach he might put more stock in what he sees firsthand rather than what happened last year, so I'd guess Price would have to play his way out of the starter's job in Montreal this season.

Jonathan said...

It was not difficult to predict Price's playoff meltdown in 2008. He was like 14 years old, playing in Montreal where he was literally hailed as the franchise savior, Huet was traded at the 2008 deadline, and the Habs had legit Stanley Cup aspirations. The following year he was thrown into a series as an 8 seed against their archrival Bruins, during Montreal's absurdly overhyped 100th season.

That he's melted down is hardly an indictment on his playoff makeup.

Give the guy a few years to prove himself, or some playoff games under normal circumstances, or even a year outside of Montreal, or something along those lines, before throwing him under the bus for cracking under pressure.

Host PPH said...

one thing for sure about predictions. it is just a predictions and there are some sports that they don't work as good as you expected that they work.